Capacity dilemma in Myanmar

Posted on September 9, 2012

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WASHINGTON – Profound disagreements among careful observers and participants on the Myanmar scene are still prevalent on President Thein Sein’s current reforms, including over their significance, extent, and likely longevity.

Burma’s President Thein Sein

These include pro and anti-sanctions groups, insiders on both sides of the reform fence, and various interested governments of distinct and distant preferences. Yet on one issue there is virtually unanimous agreement: the institutions of Myanmar lack sufficient capacity and institutions are essential if reforms are to take deep root.

Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, separately or together, are personally necessary for reforms to succeed. But their personalities alone are not sufficient. To implement reforms in any field and to build institutions, the need for training and the development of modern skills in traditional and emerging avenues are self evident. “Training” is the watchword of the day in Myanmar.

Whether one is interested in economic modernization and development, an effective educational system, health services, basic statistical and informational modernity, and even a military that knows both its more sophisticated equipment and its relationship to society, the methodologies of all of the above and more are archaic, limited, or even absent.

Capacity building is now a big part of any governmental aid or non-governmental program in the country. These training programs are longer or shorter in term, based either in-country or abroad, and sponsored by a wide variety of states and private organizations. They are widely viewed as critical for the future of Myanmar and the effectiveness of its inchoate reforms.

There are reasons for concern about whether these programs will deliver. Observers and participants of the Myanmar scene – or those of any other country that is undergoing the process of modernization and development – should be well aware of the history of mis-targeted and poorly executed economic and other forms of assistance.

It’s a well-worn pattern: assistance programs are conceived and planned, activities start, and training is built into the project and program design. Yet what often occurs is a hiatus between the inception of a reform, policy, program, or project, and its effective implementation. People need training everywhere, but even more in relatively isolated states like Myanmar, which is just now emerging from nearly five decades of uninterrupted military rule.

What has caused the lack of capacity in Myanmar? Here we need to be brutally candid. There are disciplines, including such as information technology and modern medicine, that are so new that training would be required for even more developed states. But responsibility for gaps in other basic fields and disciplines needs to be assigned.

Myanmar, previously known as Burma, once had a highly developed educational system, with probably the best university in Southeast Asia some three score years ago. That once proud system has by nearly all measures collapsed.

Former military ruler General Ne Win introduced ideological rigor during the country’s 1962 to 1988 socialist period. Although the state was not as isolated as communist North Korea or Albania, it turned inward to exclude critical thinking and much international contact. The reading of a wide range of international academic literature was forbidden during this closed period.

The later ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) changed the country’s ideological orientation but continued a rigid set of censorship regulations on both news and general publications and imported books.

The announcement last month that news journals will no longer be subject to pre-publication censorship was greeted widely with optimism, but many of the laws that give precedence to national security over freedom of expression and association are still in place.

Both problems of ideology and censorship were exacerbated by the closure of universities, and even high schools, for extended periods due to military fears of student-led ferment. Teachers were badly paid and to make ends meet had to instruct privately what they were supposed publicly to teach. Corruption was widely evident. So for over half a century the prospect of academic-led progress was effectively diminished, even virtually eliminated.

Since the 1988 uprising and crackdown, however, there have been new sets of causes – and here the responsibility for stasis or decay must be shared. Aside from China and India (after 1993), and a few other states, there was little attempt to train Myanmar’s officials and planners.

The European Union (EU) and United States (US) imposed sanctions and attempted to get other states such as Japan to stop their official assistance. To train apolitical, technocratic Burmese, so critics argued, would be to strengthen a set of unsavory regimes. Such training, even of highly specialized skills for younger, non-political employees of any institution, it was feared would enable the military government to strengthen itself and provide a veneer of legitimacy to an unpleasant regime.

The EU and US instead opted to isolate Myanmar, especially the military, known as the tatmadaw, although one might have thought that training in non-lethal affairs and human rights might have been helpful given the tatmadaw’s critical and central role in Myanmar society.

Some training by foreign organizations did, of course, take place, including programs outside of the country among those who left for ubiquitous political and economic reasons. These were the dissidents who, many of them thought and were encouraged by donors to think, were to return in the vanguard of a new, civilian-led political system following “regime change” – the ultimate goal of the EU and US sanctions regimen. But they were not to contribute to the existing military government.

As a result, apart from low key media training sessions, modern in-country training did not take place. Now the public and private donors and well-wishers of Myanmar’s new reformist incarnation search the state far and wide for those who have modern capacities, or even those who have the basic potential to be trained.

This dilemma was both predictable and predicted. As Thein Sein’s government is anxious for reforms to have an early effect, the ability to build momentum is severely constricted by the past policies of both the Myanmar state and donors of all stripes. These past deleterious policies could adversely affect the reform process as a whole, not only in individual fields.

A lack of positive, quick, and effective reform impacts could sour the whole reform effort – both among the reformers and the populace – with potential dire consequences for the country. If that were to happen, as some believe is possible, EU and US donors should indulge in a good bit of self-criticism, for they were in part responsible for Myanmar’s current lack of capacity.

David I Steinberg